What the death of the movement’s figurehead means for al-Qaeda, Pakistan, Afghanistan—and the West
Woken by the deafening thump of rotor blades, Haji Bashir Khan crept on to his roof and watched, under a warm and moonless sky, as American special forces stormed his neighbour’s compound. “Yes, we were scared. We don’t have terrorism here,” says the middle-aged restaurateur. He heard shooting and screams, then felt an explosion as a grounded helicopter was destroyed. The blast broke his bedroom window and strewed blackened bits of the chopper over a nearby wheat field.
Mr Khan and others in Abbottabad, a garrison town north of Islamabad, say the raid that killed Osama bin Laden lasted for 40 minutes. In the Situation Room at the White House, where Barack Obama and his staff gathered to watch reports of progress (see above), it seemed to last for very much longer. But in the end—in the very early hours of May 2nd, Pakistan time—American Navy Seals shot to death the man who had plotted the murder of nearly 3,000 people on September 11th 2001 and who had became the symbolic leader of global jihad against the West.
America’s first lead came four years ago. Thanks to information acquired by interrogating detainees, officials identified one of the few al-Qaeda couriers trusted by Mr bin Laden. Two years later, they pinpointed the area of Pakistan in which he operated. But it was not until last August that they worked out precisely where this man and his brother lived: in a large house built in 2005 on what were then the outskirts of Abbottabad. It was surrounded by walls up to 18 feet high. Though large and expensive, it had no phone or internet connection, and few outward-facing windows. In addition to the two brothers, a third family was in residence. After careful analysis the Americans concluded that this family was Mr bin Laden’s.
Pakistan’s government, bracing itself for public anger and revenge attacks, grimly declared that it was caught unawares by the raid. Much harder to swallow are its claims that Pakistan’s blundering spies had no idea that Mr bin Laden had been kept, probably for years, not in a remote cave on the Afghan frontier but cradled in the arms of retired and serving generals in a pleasant hillside town. It prefers to plead incompetence, since admitting to the alternative is far more painful: that the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI), or rogue elements in it, had long harboured Mr bin Laden and that Pakistan’s leaders acquiesced in his killing, if at all, only moments before it was done.
That seems, to many, the likelier explanation. Mr bin Laden’s prolonged stay, with many of his relatives flocking in from Yemen, required a network of help. That he had relatively few guards on the spot also suggests he trusted others for security. Ordinary residents of Abbottabad were expected regularly to show their ID cards.
Usually smooth-talking ISI men have been giving garbled accounts of what they and their government were up to. Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, pleaded innocence in an op-ed article in the Washington Post, arguing that Pakistan had as much reason to despise al-Qaeda as any other country. More telling is the gobsmacked silence of General Ashfaq Kayani, the powerful army chief, who had long denied that Mr bin Laden was hidden in Pakistan. Only on April 23rd he had brushed away American grumbles that too little was being done to fight terrorists, saying blithely that they would soon be beaten. All the more galling for him, he spoke at Abbottabad’s military academy, within waving distance of the most wanted terrorist in the world.
A waning star
Ever since evading his pursuers in the Tora Bora mountains of Afghanistan in November 2001, Mr bin Laden’s slipperiness in the face of America’s efforts to find him had inspired jihadists everywhere. In the crowded field of Islamist terrorism it also preserved al-Qaeda, his loose-limbed organisation, as the leading brand.
Yet there were, and are, many cracks in this apparently bold façade. According to some observers, al-Qaeda is under severe pressure: smaller in numbers than it has been for years, short of money, and much less capable of carrying out big operations against the “far” enemy in the West (as opposed to the “near” enemy, usually defined as corrupt Muslim states). And in the Middle East, in particular, al-Qaeda’s star has long been waning.
Mr bin Laden’s death proved that. Although newspapers across the region splashed it over their front pages, and TV talk shows rattled on into the wee hours parsing the implications, interest faded quickly. Aside from a few odes to martyrdom posted on obscure jihadist websites, and sniffy complaints that Mr bin Laden’s burial at sea offended Muslim tradition, scarcely a tear was shed.
Neither Mr bin Laden nor al-Qaeda ever held sustained appeal for most of his fellow Arabs and Muslims. To many he was a scourge and a criminal, responsible not only for thousands of deaths but for bringing notoriety to Muslims everywhere. Others regarded him as a romantically defiant figure, a man who, despite the evident brutality of his methods, harboured the good intention of freeing Muslims from Western tutelage. Yet even to many of his admirers, the thrill of seeing the American lion’s tail violently yanked proved short-lived.
As time passed, it was clear that the goals of Mr bin Laden’s jihad—especially ridding Muslim lands of infidel occupiers—were getting no closer. On the contrary, his belligerence excused further Western trespass into Iraq and Afghanistan, bolstered Western backing for Muslim allies in the war on terror, and starkly amplified Muslim divisions, such as those between Sunnis and Shias. Even before this year’s surge of popular revolts upended regional politics, al-Qaeda had faded to the margins. Mr bin Laden’s acolytes thrived only in remote, lawless zones such as the mountains of Yemen and Pakistan, the deserts of the Sahel and the badlands of Afghanistan and Iraq, where what sustained them was resistance to the foreign invasions they had helped to provoke. The constant hounding of security forces kept the leaders in hiding, increasingly unable to communicate with each other or the world.
As a result, “core” al-Qaeda, roughly defined as the remnants of the organisation led by Mr bin Laden and his Egyptian deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, which found refuge in the tribal areas of Pakistan after its expulsion from Afghanistan, is in a poor state. Mounting numbers of missile strikes by CIA-controlled Predator drones on its camps in North Waziristan have succeeded in killing many al-Qaeda fighters and operatives, some quite senior, over the past two years. These attacks have been so effective (at least militarily; they are loathed by ordinary Pakistanis, who too often end up as unintended victims) that they have led to some al-Qaeda commanders murdering each other, convinced they have been betrayed from within.
Such is the fear that their communications are being monitored that discarded mobile-phone sim cards have been found littering the ground around al-Qaeda and Taliban camps. According to intelligence sources, Mr Zawahiri “went dark” in late 2009 and has not been heard of since. The drones also gather huge amounts of real-time information, which has allowed General David Petraeus, the coalition commander in Afghanistan, to use special forces to attack Taliban and al-Qaeda bases, at times, almost nightly. Recent estimates suggest that al-Qaeda’s active membership in Afghanistan and Pakistan is now little more than a couple of hundred, plus foreign fighters who come and go.
Franchises and offshoots
The number of terrorist threats identified by Western intelligence agencies as coming from the region has declined, although not by as much as might have been expected. A few years ago more than 75% of the threats originated in South Asia; now the split with the rest of the world is about even. And yet the network has one proven advantage: its protean ability to adapt to circumstance.
Another result of the concerted pressure on al-Qaeda’s core has been its mutation from the hierarchical pyramid organisation it was in 2001 into what Leah Farrall, author of the blog All Things Counter-Terrorism, describes as a “devolved network hierarchy, in which levels of command authority are not always clear, personal ties between militants carry weight and, at times, transcend the command structure between [al-Qaeda’s] core, branch and franchises.” In this model the core leadership is largely relieved of direct operational responsibilities, which devolve to the branches and franchises. Instead, the core exercises command and control only over strategy and ideology.
This is not a particularly recent development. In fact, the September 11th attacks were themselves intended to draw in disparate jihadist groups that had resisted Mr bin Laden’s attempts to unify the movement—both through the huge propaganda impact of the deed itself, and also in reaction to America’s anticipated military response. The tactic worked.
The first manifestation of the new structure was the activation by Mr bin Laden of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). According to Ms Farrall, AQAP, which has bases in south and east Yemen and was founded primarily to destabilise the Saudi regime, should be seen as an offshoot from the core organisation rather than a franchise operation.
The biggest and most powerful example of the latter is still al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which was created in 2004 when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi pledged the allegiance of his terror group, Jamaat al- Tawhid wal-Jihad (JTJ), to Mr bin Laden. JTJ had more fighters and was perpetrating many more well-publicised acts of violence than al-Qaeda, but such was the strength of the al-Qaeda brand that Zarqawi, who died in an American air strike in 2006, had no hesitation in linking himself to Mr bin Laden.
Before he died, Zarqawi was instrumental in bringing another terrorist organisation, the Algerian-based Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (known as GSPC), under the al-Qaeda umbrella. In late 2006 Mr Zawahiri announced a “blessed union” between GSPC and al-Qaeda. A few months later the group was renamed al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), identifying France (the former colonial power) and America as the two “far” enemies on which it would focus.
The next outfit likely to become an al-Qaeda franchise is Shabab, a fast-growing militant group that operates in Somalia and has close ties to nearby AQAP—if it can reconcile its differences with Hisbul Islam, another Islamist insurgent group in Somalia with links to al-Qaeda. After bitter fighting between the two, Hisbul Islam submitted to a Shabab takeover at the end of last year, but tensions persist. Shabab has been particularly successful in recruiting foreign fighters and Somali exiles.
Some of these franchise groups are very small. AQAP is reckoned by Yemeni officials to be able to field about 400 men. In 2007 al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb had perhaps 200-300 fighters. Many surviving members of al-Qaeda’s affiliates have drifted into smaller Sunni factions under no centralised command. Even tinier, isolated cells exist elsewhere in the region, erupting perhaps once a decade.
Yet the size of these groups may be misleading. AQAP, for example, is by far the most energetic part of al-Qaeda at present. Under the leadership of Nasser al-Wahayshi, a former close aide of Mr bin Laden’s, and Anwar al-Awlaki, a charismatic American-Yemeni cleric, AQAP has been the instigator of several recent terrorist plots aimed at America: among them the Fort Hood shootings carried out by Nidal Malik Hasan, the attempted destruction of a passenger plane by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the Christmas Day “underpants bomber”) and the highly sophisticated plot last October to blow up two Chicago-bound cargo planes with almost undetectable bombs disguised as printer cartridges.
Internet monitoring also shows that far greater numbers of sympathisers follow jihadist literature, suggesting a broad pool of potential recruits. Many of these come from the wider Salafist trend of puritan Islam, much of which has traditionally rejected violent jihad, largely on tactical grounds, in favour of quiet proselytising.
Alex Gallo, of West Point’s Combating Terrorism Centre, says that core al-Qaeda has evolved a most effective and flexible approach, a bit like Michael Porter’s theory of the value chain. Core al-Qaeda, he argues, has de-emphasised the resource- intensive part of violent activity—training, equipping and deploying fighters around the world—in favour of acting as a kind of consultancy, providing strategic direction, ideological coherence and financial advice. According to him, “al-Qaeda understands that, given the constrained context in which it operates today, it is able to provide more robust and enduring value to the global jihadist movement through its unique infrastructure and expertise in …marketing and services.”
Al-Qaeda manages its franchises by allowing them considerable autonomy against the “near” enemy, while insisting on some direct influence over their out-of-area operations against traditional al-Qaeda targets in the West. These include public-transport networks (the old obsession with airlines is undiminished), government buildings and vital infrastructure (top of the list would probably still be an attack on a nuclear plant). How much of a directing role al-Qaeda plays is uncertain. Large operations or those involving new tactics, such as an attack using a radiological device, appear to require permission from the top, usually transmitted by the more operationally active second-tier leadership.
British intelligence sources describe AQAP as the most innovative of the al-Qaeda franchises, thanks to the grafting on to a formerly parochial organisation of a small group of well-educated people who understand the West and its weak points. But, disconcertingly, counter-terrorism agencies admit that not enough is known about the location of AQAP’s Yemen bases to mount successful drone attacks against them.
Ground Zero's note of triumph
Even with Mr bin Laden dead, most counter-terrorism professionals expect that little will change. The next few weeks will almost certainly see more strikes against high-value al-Qaeda targets as the Americans sift the information gathered from the raid in Abbottabad, a treasure trove of documents and computer hard drives, and put it to use before it goes stale. The leadership of core al-Qaeda will pass to Mr Zawahiri, who was always more operationally involved than Mr bin Laden. His first task will be to work out what aspects of the network may have been compromised and to make repairs. Less popular within the organisation than Mr bin Laden, Mr Zawahiri will have to show that he can be a unifying figure. If he cannot manage it, he will fairly soon be replaced.
In recent years hints of discord have appeared in the jihadists’ own internet traffic. Even members of the historic leadership of al-Qaeda have criticised Mr bin Laden’s strategy. Perhaps, say some dedicated jihadists, it would be better to work on consolidating gains, and appealing to like-minded Muslims, rather than eternally plotting new attacks. Perhaps the priority should be the “near enemy”, rather than America.
Such doubts from within have recently grown stronger. Unlike the war on terror, which in many ways bolstered the jihadists’ paranoid vision of Islam as a faith locked in mortal combat with an unrelenting foe, the wave of democratic change now sweeping the region risks undermining it altogether. Not only has it already succeeded where Mr Bin Laden failed, in knocking down such “apostate regimes” as those of Egypt and Tunisia. It has done so through the peaceful mobilisation of ordinary people, inspired not by religious fervour but by secular demands.
The chain of Arab uprisings also subtly puts into question the relevance of al-Qaeda’s ambition to rid Islam of foreign interference. This is most obviously true in Libya, where jihadist radicals, including former close associates of Mr bin Laden, have cheered NATO air strikes against the regime of Muammar Qaddafi as loudly as anyone. Mr Zawahiri, by contrast, called on Libyans both to fight Colonel Qaddafi and to attack the “infidel” NATO forces. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, a mainstream Islamist group whose global following is immensely greater than al-Qaeda’s, dismissed this as “a desperate attempt by al-Qaeda to impose itself as a force for change amid the huge popular and international support for non-violent revolutions across the Arab world.” It seems that, eventually, the central idea that Mr bin Laden stood for may simply be superseded.
The speculation that al-Qaeda will want to lash out to avenge its fallen leader may not be correct. One of its characteristics is patience: wide-ranging plots can take years to implement, and prematurely activating sleepers for “lone wolf” attacks may waste valuable assets. It is more likely that the next attacks, when they come, will instead simply be relabelled as retribution for Mr bin Laden’s death. In the longer term, without his unifying prestige, the network could become even more dispersed. But that will only make the job of Western intelligence agencies harder.
The far enemy comes close
And now, Pakistan
Certainly it will be harder in Pakistan, where the government, and especially the ISI, now looks humiliated. India’s hawks mock that their bitter rival can never again be trusted; noisier American congressmen want Pakistan’s $3 billion military and civilian aid budget slashed. President Zardari and other civilian leaders have floundered for a response. Relations with America were already chilled, especially between spy agencies, and have turned icy as criticism of the ISI grows.
Spooked, the Pakistanis are already warning the Americans not to consider more such raids. But that is clearly a temptation. An obvious next target would be Mullah Omar, the ageing Afghan Taliban leader, whom the ISI is also accused of protecting. American agents snooping in Pakistan’s cities in the past year may well have turned up other useful leads, but chosen not to act until Mr bin Laden was dealt with. Some conspiracy theorists even fret that the Americans may go after Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal next.
Mr Obama bent over backwards after the raid not to rub Pakistan’s face in the embarrassment of it all. His administration did not warn Pakistan that it was about to launch an attack deep inside its territory, as if there was no trust there. Nonetheless, Mr Obama said, “it’s important to note that our counterterrorism co-operation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding.”
Jay Carney, the president’s spokesman, fielding reporters’ questions on May 3rd, admitted that relations with Pakistan were “complicated”. America’s problem with the Pakistanis, remarked Lindsey Graham, the senior Republican senator from South Carolina, was that “you can’t trust them, and you can’t abandon them.”
Many foreign leaders agree. Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, who spoke on May 3rd, wants continued help for Pakistan’s civilian leaders while, at the same time, demanding that its military chiefs come clean about their spies.
Winding down a war
Any Western pressure will be calibrated with the war next door, in Afghanistan, in mind. It is unclear how much will change there after the beheading of al-Qaeda. Optimists see glimmers: for example, the hope that America may at last push Pakistan to start a long-postponed campaign against the Haqqani network, which attacks Western forces in east Afghanistan from Pakistani bases.
If the more powerful Taliban accept that Mr bin Laden is dead, they may feel excused from their Pashtunwali honour code about protecting guests and disavow their ties with al-Qaeda. A Western demand for them to do so has been the biggest block to the planned peace talks. Equally important, the Taliban may be spurred towards talks themselves, fearing that whatever support they get from inside Pakistan is now in jeopardy.
Yet it is not clear that the Taliban will grow any more amenable just yet, and such talks might not get far. Too many disparate groups would have to be involved. The Taliban’s leaders will watch to see if Mr bin Laden’s death softens Westerners’ already flagging will to fight on in Afghanistan, and whether plans harden to get many of the troops out within the next three years.
Plenty of Americans fervently hope they will be. After almost ten bloody years, the war in Afghanistan is unpopular, especially in Mr Obama’s own party. Many Democrats were appalled by his decision in 2009 to send 30,000 more troops. Now they see an unexpected opportunity. Since it was the search for Osama bin Laden that drew America into Afghanistan, isn’t his elimination the perfect moment for America to declare victory and pull out?
Grief for some, but indifference from many, in al-Qaeda’s heartland
For the present, there is little evidence that the president himself sees things that way. The official word from the White House and from America’s ambassador in Kabul is that NATO still has plenty of hard work to do before handing the war over to the Afghan government and army in 2014 as planned. Under the president’s current plan, the White House was already primed to start a review of the war in the coming weeks, to be followed in July by the start of a drawdown of some of its 100,000 soldiers in Afghanistan.
The exact number would depend on the outcome of the review. Before Mr bin Laden’s death most insiders in Washington expected that this would be modest—a few thousand or so. Mr Carney, the press spokesman, insists stoutly that nothing has changed: Mr Obama’s original plan was “very much in place”, and the pace of the withdrawal would depend on conditions on the ground in Afghanistan. But on Capitol Hill and in Washington’s think-tanks, some are more impatient.
Not all are Democrats. Senator Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says that with al-Qaeda mostly gone from Afghanistan, decamped to Pakistan and Yemen, it is folly for America to keep 100,000 troops there at a cost of $100 billion a year, and to indulge in “grand nation-building ambitions”. John Kerry, the committee’s Democratic chairman, said the killing created the possibility of “re-evaluating what kind of transition we need in Afghanistan”.
There are, however, many voices on the other side of the debate. Senator Graham said it would be a “huge mistake and a catastrophic blunder” to think that killing Mr bin Laden ended the need for American action in Iraq and Afghanistan. “You don’t win the war by killing terrorists,” he said. “Over time, you win the war by investing in those who will live in peace with us.” Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate’s Homeland Security Committee, said that to withdraw quickly would be to repeat the mistake America made when it abandoned Afghanistan to the Taliban after the Soviets departed.
It is impossible to be sure which way Mr Obama will jump. On the one hand, the raid on Abbottabad has delivered an immediate boost in the polls, including, according to the Pew Research Centre, a 17-point leap in the number of Americans who approve of his handling of the war. That, says Paul Pillar, a former CIA analyst for the Middle East and South Asia, gives the president some additional wiggle room if he wants to bring home more troops in July than he previously intended. But Mr Obama is also bound to be wary of doing anything that might squander his new-found standing as a potent warrior against America’s enemies. Quite aside from the merits of the case, a dash for the exit might provoke a clash with his top brass, who are wary of leaving Afghanistan in disorder.
His unseen face
This has been a triumphant week in the fight against al-Qaeda. But the very success of the daring raid on Abbottabad has raised a host of fresh questions. Some are about the raid itself, and the details of Mr bin Laden’s death—details the Obama administration has decided to part-conceal by not releasing photographs of his body, shot through head and chest, in case they inflame his supporters.
The most important question, however, concerns the form that global jihad will now take. Al-Qaeda may be in retreat in many ways, but it is far from beaten. It has adapted before, and is still changing. A movement that prizes “martyrdom” will not let the propaganda opportunities of its symbolic leader’s execution be wasted. Indeed, Mr bin Laden’s value as a recruiting sergeant for disaffected young Muslims may be even greater in death than in life.
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